Two days before his film debut , Luke James, an R&B singer and songwriter who is part of the cast of Black Nativity, visited the Duke Ellington School of Arts just north of Georgetown in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 25 to talk to students who are about to stage their own production of the play.
The movie is based on Langston Hughes play, also called Black Nativity which retells the story of Jesus’ birth with an African American cast. Black Nativity stars Jennifer Hudson, Tyrese Gibson, and Forest Whitaker.
Kayce Wilson, a 16-year-old junior who moderated the event, asked James what inspired him to go into music.
James said he was exposed to wide range of music as a child including jazz, country and R&B. In high school, he joined a group called Upskale with two other men. One night, they tried to get into a theater where Gibson was performing.
They went through the back entrance and started singing, hoping that somebody will notice them. The bold move led to jobs writing songs for artists such as Chris Brown and Britney Spears.
James landed a role in the movie when he was invited to perform at the BET show “Black Girls Rock” last year. A casting director was in attendance and invited him to audition for a part. Although he admits he had not seen the play, he said a lot of research went into understanding his role as JoJo, a homeless man whose girlfriend is expecting a baby.
“Some people have never heard about Black Nativity, I never heard about Black Nativity,” he said. “I had to do my research on it, I had to make sure that I am doing the best I can to people who have seen it already who had an idea who JoJo is.”
While the question and answer session was in progress upstairs, downstairs in the Ellington Theatre, students where rehearsing the play. The play is directed by Katherine Smith and Tracie Jade Jenkins.
“We have some connection to the movie itself and some of the people in the movie,” said Ronald Lee Newman, the play’s operations manager and producer. “One of our directors, Tracie Jenkins, is good friends with some other people producing the movie, so Luke James came through that way.”
Jaymie Lawson, a 16-year-old junior, plays the narrator.
Lawson said all she knew about the play was that it was focused on the story of Jesus’ birth and how it affected Blacks. She hopes that when people see the show, they will leave with hope.
“In this play, it focuses a lot on the story of hope, I want people to learn that no matter what you go through, there is hope for you, don’t be defeated,” she said.
James’ advice for emerging artists was to surround themselves with like-minded people.
“You must belief in yourself first. You have to put in your 10,000 hours, that’s supposed to be the ideal number to be a professional to be the best at your craft.”
The play opened Dec. 4 at the Duke Ellington School of Arts in the Ellington Theatre with performances scheduled through Dec. 15. For more information, visit www.ellingtonschool.org.